At first glance, Reinhold Niebuhr's (1892-1971) book "Moral Man and Immoral Society" (New York:Scribners, 1932, 1960), still relevant today, could seem to breed a cynical future "from the perspective of those who will stand in the credo of the nineteenth century," ". . . enmeshed in the illusion and sentimentalities of the Age of Reason." (xxiv) Niebuhr was a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and previously pastor during the Great Depression of a small congregation in or near Dearborn, Michigan, many of whose parishioners worked for Ford Motor Company's factories. Niebuhr, having lived through the frustrations and hypocrisy of the Victorian era and economic depression and two World Wars, assessed people in group types of church denominations, nations, privileged classes, the middle class, blue-collar working classes, and mobs. He lamented the necessary time restraints that representative democracy requires and that permit self-interest to misuse information and lapse into greed.
The theme of Niebuhr's text is that sometimes more or less those persons who look and act morally, quickly revert to immoral behavior in the face of the crowd. This is a special, powerful, deceptive influence of emotional "contagion." He expands upon Lord John Acton's (1834-1902) famous sentence, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." (Letter to Bishop Creighton, April 5, 1887; Niebuhr, 6) "The Liberal Movement both religious and secular seemed to be unconscious of the basic difference between the morality of individuals and the morality of collectives, whether races, classes or nations." (ix, xi, xxv, 257f., 262, 1960 edition) He elaborates on the crowd's collective original sin powerful to influence others.
Religious insights, Niebuhr wrote, powerfully make people "conscious of their preoccupation with self." (54) "The disrepute in which modern religion is held by large numbers of ethically sensitive individuals, springs much more from its difficulties in dealing with those complexities [--ethics and politics (257) and economics (5, 15, 142)--] than from its tardiness in adjusting itself to the spirit of modern culture." (63, 75f.)
And about psychology, "There is nothing, that modern psychologists have discovered about the persistence of ego-centricity in [hu]man[ity], which has not been anticipated in the insights of the great mystics of the classical periods of religion." (54)
Niebuhr's ten chapters then continue to illustrate and explore his theme as basic to human nature, in a rich multiplicity of historical events: religion, politics, socialism, justice, wars, hypocrisy, and so on. Niebuhr cautions about blind belief in governments: "The creeds and institutions of democracy have never been fully divorced from the special interests of the commercial classes who conceived and developed them." (14) "Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality . . . ." (95, 117, 141, 177f.) Sinclair Lewis's (1885-1951) novel "Babbitt" (New York:Harcourt, Brace Co., 1922) reflects the history in Niebuhr's theme. So also does the historico-religious work of J. B. Noss's (and his brother David in later editions) "Man's Religions" (New York:Macmillan, 1964). Collective emotions, especially anger masked as justice, are exploited to their maximum.
Though Niebuhr wrestled with the basic polarization of authoritarianism versus true democracy and with human nature's compulsion of action-reaction, he does not reflect further upon and explore the phenomena that the majority consists of collections of minorities which control their leadership and polarization. (4, 5) Nevertheless, his perception of the historical human predicament is alarmingly accurate.
Niebuhr sees no comprehensive solution to this dilemma--the individual motivated by love and society by justice--though he hopes for groups of individuals that may bring about more of it. "Love must strive for something purer than justice if it would attain justice." (xxiv, 226, 264-266, 273f., 277)
The Rev. Dr. Charles G. Yopst, D.Min., D.T.R.
Mount Prospect, Illinois, NW of Chicago